Hovering somewhere between amusing and entirely unnecessary, the new remake of “The Amityville Horror” is not the absolute disaster it could have been, but it leaves you wondering exactly what the point of the entire exercise was: if the idea was to tie up the loose ends of the original story by planting a goofy-looking Scooby-Doo villain in the basement, then hooray – mission accomplished. If the intent was to provide the public with an encyclopedic knowledge of Ryan Reynolds’s chest-hair pattern, well done. But at this stage of the game, trying to find the point behind a studio horror remake is like pushing a rope, so I’ll let it lie; given the familiarity of the source material and the recent boom in the spooky-old-house genre, I was surprised to find myself mildly amused by the trials and travails of our sexy new stand-ins for the Lutz family.
The film begins with a music-video-ready presentation of the DeFeo murders, in which son Ronnie coldly executes his entire family in their beds with a rifle – except little sister Jodie, whom he shoots in her closet. We back away from the house as the rifle blasts, revealing a sign in the front yard that reads “High Hopes”. With this less-than-subtle bitchslap of irony, it’s made clear: this is not your mother’s Amityville. A vein of somewhat inappropriate dark humor runs throughout the film, which only serves to distance us from the characters, no matter how earnestly some of the more dramatic moments might attempt to endear them. In the end, the accumulation of snarky “we know what’s happening to them and they don’t” superiority undercuts any attempts to make the struggle of these people seem at all real, and we wind up enjoying their misery more than being moved or threatened by it.
That’s not to say that getting to this point is without its charms. For one, it’s quick: the film is streamlined almost to the point of being the Cliff’s Notes to another, complete movie that probably has more character development and explanations of the eerie goings-on. So at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Things move along at a nice clip, with key points revealed regularly and with a decent amount of flair (the moments when the house itself starts playing with them are the best – windows that open themselves and furnaces that spark up without warning are always fun for those of us who don’t own property). Jody The Adorable Corpse makes a few predictable appearances (her “imaginary friend” relationship with the Lutz daughter is unfortunately well-worn territory this year, what with “Hide and Seek,” “Boogeyman,” “Ring Two,” and “Darkness” already playing the Spooky Dead Kid card for all it’s worth in recent months), but her hold on the living kid really isn’t explained or justified – what exactly would a vibrant little girl with lots of toys, a dog, two brothers, and a loving mother find so attractive about a pale dead kid with a bullethole in her head? Without any explanation as to why little Chelsea (the perfectly adorable Chloe Moretz) would find Jody so appealing company, she just looks like an idiot when she lets the little spook lure her onto the roof in one of the more inane suspense sequences. The audience I saw the film with was actually yelling at the characters to shove her off the roof, rather than save her.
But these are minutiae – the real problem with Amityville is the fact that George’s descent into madness is more like a session on a trampoline than a slide down a banister. He seems to switch from loving father to batshit lunatic and back again at the drop of a hat, with little grey area in between. Ryan Reynolds manages to avoid falling into his bitchy fratboy routine for most of the film, which is quite a relief, and it’s hard to tell if the failings of his character are performance-related or if he just wasn’t given the right scenes with which to ease into the madness (most of George’s scenes could be rearranged without affecting the character arc). Given the startling amount of flesh Reynolds shows here, one might wonder if he was chosen for his 6-pack rather than his character work, particularly since he isn’t playing his usual snark routine – but fans of Men’s Fitness will no doubt be thrilled nonetheless.
Melissa George, as Kathy Lutz, is actually pretty likeable (although her reticence at confronting George about his erratic behavior is very frustrating), but in the last act she becomes more of a Sherpa for a heap of plot devices than a character (Witness Kathy enlist the help of a priest! Marvel as Kathy navigates the dreaded microfiche!), which is unfortunate since there are a sprinkling of character elements early on that are never fleshed-out (a combative relationship with her mother, lingering issues from her first husband’s death, her obsession with material success, etc.) and probably could have been mined for a more involving climax. The kids are fine, and the left-field babysitter (who looks like every future porn star of New Jersey I’ve ever met), although preposterous at first, is actually rather amusing after she starts dishing the dirt on the DeFeo massacre to the horrified kids (she also has the best line of the film).
Fans of the original may be horrified at the liberties taken with the plot; I myself don’t care much for the Brolin-Kidder snorefest, so for me the only way was up (or at least… lateral?). The whole “torture of Native Americans” thing is at least a novel last-act revelation, and if nothing else it gives the production designer the opportunity to slip some clever cowboys-and-Indians imagery into the mix (the television test pattern that seduces both George and Ronnie features a Native American chief; the wallpaper in the boys’ room has a cowboy motif). My favorite scene was one in which George forces oldest son Billy to hold firewood while he chops it with an axe – oddly, it reminded me of the scene in the “Texas Chainsaw” remake (another Platinum Dunes number) where R Lee Ermey torments Jonathan Tucker in the van. This kind of sadistic suspense works when you’re dealing with a character who is clearly losing his grip, and the scene is a glimpse of what might have been had George’s dementia been handled with a little more finesse.
A few other supposedly-creepy surprises don’t play nearly as well (as the priest, poor Philip Baker Hall looks like he was rented for the day to deliver a few pieces of information that otherwise wouldn’t fit into the script – I hope that his quick exit from the house is intended to be funny), but again – the film moves at such a clip that these moments fade fast. The pace of the film almost suggests that it knows it might lose your interest, like a nervous stand-up comic who speeds up his patter when he feels his audience’s attention waning. Combined with the wink-wink tone (which takes the wind out of its own sails before you have a chance to), we’re left with a quick, mildly amusing, and fairly inoffensive bit of summer fluff that, while no classic, is hard to get too upset with.